A. The Power of One
During the summer of 2004, Mike Krzyzewski, head coach of the men’s basketball team at Duke University, was approached about becoming head coach of the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Lakers. “Coach K,” as he is known, had gained a reputation as one of the premier coaches in college basketball. The high salary and prestige that accompanied coaching a team like the Lakers were tempting.
In the midst of his deliberations, Krzyzewski received an e-mail that proved to be the pivotal influence in his decision. Andrew Humphries, a junior at Duke, sent an impassioned message for Coach K to stay. The e-mail brought tears to the eyes of Krzyzewski; he rejected the Lakers’ offer and chose to remain at Duke.
Andrew Humphries was just one person ye the had the power to persuade! The prophet Elijah also was just one man. His voice seemed like a whisper in Israel when compared with the powerful, government-backed influence of Baal worship. Yet when just one person chooses to stand firm on behalf of the one true God, the results can be one of a kind! Coach K could well have made a different decision even after Humphries’ e-mail. Would the people on Mount Carmel dared to have chosen Baal after seeing the power of God before their eyes?
B. What Profit Were the Prophets?
Many associate the word prophet with some-one who has the ability to predict the future. The role of the Old Testament prophets, however, went much further than this. Every prophet conveyed a significant message and was raised up by the Lord during a particularly critical time in the history of God’s people.
Prophets were raised up by the Lord during periods when paganism became an especially serious threat to God’s people. This is one of the reasons that the prophet Elijah’s ministry was pivotal. Ahab and Jezebel (particularly jezebel)were intent on promoting the worship of pagan gods throughout Israel. Baal was considered a god of storms and fertility, meaning that he was believed to be in charge of providing life to crops, animals, and human beings.
God used Elijah to counter this false and repulsive system of worship. Elijah demonstrated that the God who had called Israel to be His people was still in control.
C. Lesson Background
By the time Elijah’s ministry began, the nation of Israel had been divided for approximately half a century. (Israel is often used to designate the ten tribes that constituted the northern kingdom with Judah referring to the two tribes of the southern kingdom.) Elijah himself appears in the biblical record quite suddenly. Nothing is said about his parents, his childhood, or even his call to be a prophet.
The first time he is mentioned is in 1 Kings17:1, where he announces a period of drought in the land of Israel. This challenge was a slap in the face of the god Baal and of those who worshiped him, since Baal was believed to be the provider of storms that would bring rain.
Elijah was then guided through a series of circumstances that served to prepare him further for his ministry and assure him of God’s presence. First, he was told to go to the Cherithbrook, where ravens brought him food twice a day (1 Kings 17:5, 6). When the brook dried up because of the drought, the Lord told Elijah to travel northward to Zarephath of Sidon. There the Lord used a widow to provide Elijah with food in a miraculous manner. Later when the widow’s only son became ill and died, Elijah prayed to the Lord and the boy was brought back to life (vv. 7-24).
Notice that the miracles had something to do with providing food in life-areas where Baal was believed to be in control. Sidon was Jezebel’s homeland (1 Kings 16:34 Elijah thus saw God’s clear superiority to the pagan gods!
In the third year of the drought, the Lord told Elijah to “Go, show thyself unto Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth” (1 Kings 18:4 Elijah sent a message to Ahab through Obadiah, an official of Ahab’s who was also a devout follower of the Lord.
When prophet and king met, Elijah issued a challenge to Ahab to summon all Israel to assemble at Mount Carmel. Ahab seas also to gather the 450 prophets of Baal “and the prophets of the roves four hundred” (1 Kings 18:19). The term, roves refers to the images of the goddess ksherah, who was believed to be Baal’s consort. Because these images were often made of wood, the term groves (describing groups of such wood) used.
At this point, Elijah did not specify what he planned to do at Mount Carmel. Our printed text begins by describing Ahab’s compliance with Elijah’s challenge.
I. People Addressed(1 Kings 18:20-24)
A. The Place (v. 20)
20. So Ahab sent unto all the children of Israel, and gathered the prophets together unto mount Carmel.
Ahab does as Elijah says, sending word throughout all Israel and gathering the prophet son Mount Carmel. Later Elijah observes that the450 prophets of Baal are present (v. 22), but he says nothing about the 400 prophets of Asherah. For some unknown reason, Jezebel apparently forbids her prophets to come to Mount Camel.
Probably her failure to comply with Elijah’s challenge is simply an act of defiance. Maybe Ahab is willing to do what Elijah says, but Jezebel is not about to!
One may ask why Mount Carmel serves as the place for this assembly. Mount Carmel is actually a mountain ridge some 12 miles in length. Near the summit of the ridge is a plateau where a contest such as this one can take place. A spring of water is close at hand. It flows even during extremely dry seasons. This is why Elijah can have12 containers of water poured on his sacrifice(vv. 33, 34, below) even though this incident occurs during drought conditions.
B. The Plea (v. 21)
21. And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? if the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word.
Elijah begins his address to the Israelites withal question: How long halt ye between two opinions? In the antique language of the King James Version, the word halt in this passage does not mean “stop.” The term (translated from Hebrew to Greek) can also convey the idea of limping or lameness (Luke 14:21; John 5:3). In certain cases in the Gospels it describes those who could not walk whom Jesus healed.
Elijah thus is describing the spiritual unsteadiness of the people in the crowd that day. The alternative to such hobbling will be a confident, steady walk with the Lord, which they do not possess.
The issue facing the people on this occasion is remarkably simple. Two options confront them: the way of the Lord and the way of Baal. In today’s pluralistic religious climate, Elijah’s statement is still timely. We may choose a narrow road to salvation or a wide road to destruction (Matthew 7:13, 14).
Observe the audience’s passive, apathetic response: the people answered him not a word. Per-haps they are cowering in fear, knowing that to answer in favor of Baal will displease Elijah, while answering in favor of the Lord will ignite the rage of Jezebel. Perhaps their silence reflects their lack of passion for or interest in anything having to do with spiritual matters. It is also possible that Elijah’s uncompromising words make all too clear their failure to obey the Lord; thus their silence may indicate a sense of shame or embarrassment. In any case, the safe response(from a worldly point of view) is to keep quiet.
C. The Plan (vv. 22-24)
22. Then said Elijah unto the people, I, even I only, remain a prophet of the LORD; but Basil’s prophets are four hundred and fifty men. Elijah observes that he is the only one of the Lord’s prophets left. Yet we know from an earlier statement in 1 Kings 18:4 that Obadiah, one of Ahab’s officials, has hidden 100 prophets of the Lord from Jezebel’s murderous fury. In addition there are prophets such as Micaiah (22:8)and various unnamed men who are part of the group known as the “sons of the prophets”(20:35). Elijah probably means that he is the only one of the Lord’s prophets who is present for this confrontation.
Elijah’s emphasis on the contrast between 1and 450 highlights a key principle: truth is not determined by the numbers who embrace a certain position. Truth is truth, no matter how many OT how few hold to it at any given time.
23, 24. Let them therefore give us two bullocks; and let them choose one bullock for themselves, and cut it in pieces, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under: and I will dress the other bullock, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under: and call ye on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the Loan: and the God that answereth by fire, let him be God. And all the people answered and said, It is well spoken.
The rules of the contest are simple. Each side is to prepare a bull in the some manner: cut it in pieces, and My it 017 wood. Then each side is to calf on the name of its deity. The God who responds by fire will prove himself to be the true God.
The fire may refer to lightning. Remember that the issue is which deity is in control of the rains. Lightning would serve as a signal of the coming of the drought-ending rains and would demonstrate to those gathered on Mount Carmel which God is in control of the forces of nature.
Perhaps the prophets of Baal relish the opportunity to go first. Should Baal respond to their cries, the contest essentially will be over. How-ever, their going first only sets the stage for what Elijah will do, because it will highlight how powerless Baal really is.
Verses 25-29 (not in our printed text) record the futile efforts of the followers of Baal. The threefold emphasis at the conclusion of verse 29provides a solemn closure to the failure of Baal’s prophets: “there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded.” The stage is now set for a dramatic display of divine power.
II. Preparation Accomplished(1 Kings 18:30-35)
A. Setting Up the Altar (vv. 30-32)
30.And Elijah said unto all the people, Come near unto me. And all the people came near unto him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that was broken down.
While nothing is said specifically about the altar used by the prophets of Baal, it is noted that Elijah repaired the altar of the Lord, which was broken down. No doubt this altar had been a victim of the apathy and neglect of the people to-ward the worship of the true God.
31.And Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, unto whom the word of the La. came, saying, Israel shall be thy name.
The use of twelve stones by Elijah is noteworthy in light of the fact the nation of Israel has been divided for several decades by this time. Yet Elijah recognizes through this action that God’s original intention is that the Israelites be12 tribes—yet one nation—under Him.
In the sixteenth century English royal power increasingly asserted itself over Ireland. That pressure set off some four centuries of political and religious struggle. The Anglo-Irish war of1919-1921 resulted in two separate countries. Mostly Catholic southern Ireland became independent. Northern Ireland was moody Protestant and aligned with Britain.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, dissidents hoped for political reunification of Ire-land. These dissidents used terrorist methods to try to force the British out of Northern Ireland. One could have hoped that since each side of the Protestant-Catholic divide claimed to be Christian, they could all act as if they were and quit killing each other.
The century-long division of the Irish peoples is somewhat similar to that of God’s people of old. Israel and Judah were divided politically and religiously. Israel in the north had turned mostly to Baalism; Judah in the south had remained somewhat faithful to Yahweh (although it had dabbled in idolatry also). By building his altar out of 12 stones, Elijah hoped that the symbolic number would speak to all the tribes of divided Israel. Perhaps they would remember their common heritage before the one true God. Faithfulness to God is without doubt the best way for any nation to find internal peace. That fact should not be lost on the people of any democracy when they go to the polls to elect their leaders. —C. R. B.
32. And with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD: and he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed.
The act described earlier in verse 30 as repairing the altar of the Lord is now described in an-other way: Elijah built an altar in the name of the Lord. Elijah is building an altar under the authority of and in reverence for the true God. God’s name has lost none of its power, in spite of Ahab and Jezebel’s attempts to stamp it out.
This verse also notes that Elijah makes a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed. This computes to about 13quarts. If such an act seems odd to the onlookers, it does not compare with what Elijah does next.
B. Soaking the Sacrifice (vv. 33-35)
33, 34. And he put the wood in order, and cut the bullock in pieces. and laid him on the wood and said, Fill four barrels with water, and pour it on the burnt sacrifice, and on the wood. And he said, Do it the second time. And they did it the second time. And he said, Do it the third time. And they did it the third time.
Elijah proceeds to prepare the sacrifice according to the rules established earlier. But then he does something else quite unexpected: he commands that four barrels of water be poured on the offering three times. As noted earlier, water maybe available from the streams that now at higher elevations, such as that of Mount Carmel, despite the severe drought that is now in its fourth year(Luke 4:25: James 5:17).
35. And the water ran round about the altar; and he filled the trench also with water.
By soaking completely the sacrifice and the altar, Elijah sets the stage for an even more impressive demonstration of the power of the true God. At the same time, Elijah is also putting his own reputation as the Lord’s prophet on the line. He will look utterly foolish if God fails to answer. Elijah’s actions also indicate to the audience that he is not engaging in any kind of trickery to ignite his sacrifice. If the sacrifice is ignited, the only possible explanation will be that God has done it.
The prayer of Elijah, recorded in verses 36 and37, is not part of our printed text. His simple, earnest plea to the Lord contrasts markedly with the frenzied madness of the prophets of Baal. And whereas there was no response of any kind to the prophets of Baal, such is not the case now.
Ill. Prayer Answered(1 Kings 18:38, 39)
A. The Lord’s Response (v. 38)
38. Then the fire of the LORD fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones. and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.
In a spectacular display of unmistakably divine power, the fire of the Lord consumes every-thing that is part of the preparation for the sacrifice. Even the water in the trench is licked up by the fire.
B. The People’s Reaction (v. 39)
39. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The LORD, he is the God; The LORD, he is the God.
All the people, who were silent earlier when confronted by Elijah (v. 21), do not hesitate to
express their reaction after what they witness. What else could they conclude? The Lord, he is the God.
The aftermath of the contest on Mount Carmel includes the slaughter of the prophets of Baal. That is in accordance with the Law of Moses concerning false prophets (Deuteronomy 18:20). Also come the long-awaited rains. The drought has ended, and more importantly the Lord, His prophet, and His Word have been vindicated.
“DON’T TRY THIS AT How.”
We’ve all heard of fire-breathing preachers of the gospel. Colin Davis, a Church of England vicar in Devon, England, is a fire-eating preacher! While he was in college training for the ministry, he saw a fire performer and thought he would be able to use the trick to attract attention to the message of Christ. Neither his former work as a banker nor his current work as a preacher would seem to predict this particular avocation!
Davis says he uses the trick for its attention-grabbing impact, comparing the feat to Jesus’ use of parables. Only occasionally does his performance take place in church; more often he does it in school assemblies. On those occasions he makes students vow before the demonstration that they will not try it.
In one sense, Elijah’s use of fire was like Colin Davis’s use of fire: it certainly captured the attention of his audience! On the other hand, there is a striking difference: Davis’s performance is just that—a trick that has no physical effect. But Elijah’s fire was sent by God from Heaven to consular everything in its path. We can respond, “Don’t try this at home” to both. Seeing the constant shower of God’s blessings in our everyday lives should be all we need to evoke the same re-action as that of Elijah’s audience: “The Lord, He is the God!” This bears repeating.
A. Demonstrating Power Today
Perhaps after reading an account such as that of Elijah we may wonder, “Why don’t we see demonstrations of God’s power such as this today? If we could offer the kind of evidence that Elijah did on Mount Carmel, think of the impact it would have on our culture! Does God no longer provide these demonstrations, or do we as His people lack faith?”
We should remember that as Christians we bear witness to the greatest of all demonstrations of God’s power: the resurrection of Jesus His Son from the dead. That always has been the essence of the gospel message (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).Interestingly, when the New Testament instructs Christians on bow to live in light of that event, it points to the quiet, often inconspicuous deeds of service done in the name of Christ. The metaphors of salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16) are hardly noisy or flamboyant in how they function. But no one can question their effectiveness or their necessity.
Elijah’s surroundings demanded the kind of highly visible, dramatic manifestation of power that God wrought at Mount Carmel. We see similar demonstrations during other critical periods in biblical history (the plagues in Egypt and the miracles of Jesus, for example). But a primary challenge issued to New Testament believers today is that of a consistently holy lifestyle. Pete challenged the Christians of his time to live holy lives among unbelievers that “whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12).
Father, may we have the courage to stand for You in our time as Elijah did in his. When we feel intimidated by the strength or loudness of the opposition, help us to be unmoved. Help us to remain faithful and consistent in our testimony. May we thereby give no one cause to question our devotion to Your Son, Jesus. In His name, amen.
C. Thought to Remember
God will give us t